It's easy – well, easyish – to keep toddlers entertained when the sun's shining. A dig in the sandpit, a toddle round the park, a bit of fruit picking and your day is full. It gets a little more challenging, however, when the days shorten and the home comforts of central heating and CBeebies beckon. Yet autumn, despite the damp mornings and dark afternoons, is the perfect time to get young children out and about. As the Danes, who come from a country well used to climatic unpredictability, like to say, there's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing.
Out and about
"Children love to splash about in puddles and kick through the leaves," says child development expert Sue Palmer. "As long as they're wrapped up, they don't care what the weather's like." And, adds Palmer, the author of Toxic Childhood and 21st Century Boys, this isn't just a nice thing to do; it's essential for the health and well-being of our children.
Use a walk to introduce your children to the sounds, colours and textures of autumn. Kick through leaves, slide through mud and stomp through puddles. Point out how their breath is steamy on cold mornings. Look at the pretty spider webs draped in dew. Collect conkers, pine cones, acorns, sycamore seeds and different-coloured leaves.
Feed the birds
It's remarkably easy to make your own bird feed, albeit a little messy – but that only adds to the fun quotient. Coat some large pine cones (collected on one of those autumnal walks) with peanut butter, and then roll the sticky cone in some birdseed. Tie a string to the top end and hang outside. Another option is to make bird cake – little fingers will love to mix birdseed into gooey room-temperature lard. Carefully make a small hole in the bottom of a yoghurt pot or orange half, thread string through the hole and tie a knot on the inside. Leave enough string so you can tie the pot to a tree or your bird table. Fill the containers with the bird cake, and refrigerate for a couple of hours before hanging outside, preferably near a window for easy viewing.
First, find your perfect pumpkin. This half term, you could try the Great Pumpkin Hunt at Bucklebury Farm Park in Reading ( www.buckleburyfarmpark.co.uk), seek out the pumpkins hidden amid the historic gardens at Compton Acres in Dorset ( www.comptonacres.co.uk) or push your wheelbarrow through the pumpkin patch maze at Ivy House Farm near Whitchurch (www.virtual-shropshire.co.uk).
Second, make a pumpkin lantern – just be sure that a responsible adult is in charge of the knife. You don't have to carve a ghoulish face: a smiling teddy or cat can be more toddler-friendly, depending on your artistry. And don't waste the innards: you can get some recipe inspiration at the www.bbc.co.uk/food/pumpkin website.
Third, recycle your lantern. Park Hill Farm in Shropshire ( www.parkhillfarm.co.uk) is organising Piggies Pumpkin Parties on 4 November (12-2pm) and on 7 November (10am-4 pm), at which children can give their old pumpkin to the delighted piggy of their choice. "It's a fantastic way to demonstrate food recycling, enrichment of farm animals' lives, and to have a good time," say the organisers, who promise a balloon to every child who brings a pumpkin.
Rainy afternoons indoors
When you just can't get out, there are plenty of opportunities to bring nature indoors. Former nursery owner Janet Ford says this is a wonderful time to help children learn about colour, texture and nature – be it making fiery leaf collages, cooking gooey pumpkin soup or planting bulbs indoors in soft, dark soil. "The important thing is to let the children explore, and encourage them to talk about the colours and textures they're experiencing," says Ford, who has helped many toddlers make the most of the seasonal changes in her 20-year career. "The mess can always be cleared up."
You could paint leaves and use them to print patterns on paper. Or get out some glitter to make sparkly firework paintings. Time to clean up after the craft session? Put a washing-up bowl of warm water and bubbles on the floor (protected by towels), provide a few plastic containers, and let them get busy washing off the paint. And have more towels at the ready for the aftermath.
Buy a cheap disposable camera and let your child get snappy round the house or garden – it's amazing what they choose to record. Use another rainy afternoon to sort through the photographs and stick them in scrapbooks.
Plant some spring bulbs in indoor containers which the children have decorated with paint, glitter and ribbon. They make wonderful Christmas presents for grandparents.
With the shops now bedecked with skulls, fangs and candy-collecting cauldrons, it is difficult to avoid the consumer-fest that is Halloween. Some small children may be frightened, so take care how you approach any Halloween-themed activities. A little dressing-up and some apple bobbing may be just enough at this age.
Those of a stronger constitution could do some Halloween baking. Helen Nathan, author of the popular Flossie Crums baking series for children ( www.flossiecrums.com), says this is a great time of year to get creative in the kitchen. "I don't often use lots of food colouring, but at Halloween there's something wonderful about putting a tiny drop of purple colour into buttercream, and turning a regular vanilla cupcake into an ogre's eyeball cake. Purple icing and a black-and-white mint humbug, and hey presto!"
An ordinary cake with icing on top can quickly be turned into a giant spider's web. "Use a black writing icing pen to draw concentric circles round the cake," instructs Nathan. "Using a cocktail stick, start at the centre of the cake and "pull" the black lines out with the stick, making a spider's-web design."
This year, Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is on 5 November. This is a great opportunity to explore new foods, make colourful rangoli patterns or a Diwali lantern (See the CBeebies website for some creative ideas).
Firework displays and very young children don't always mix, as some small children are afraid of the noise. Some displays are child-friendly, however: Roves Farm near Swindon, for example, promises a "no-loud-bangs" bonfire and fireworks party on 30 October (www.rovesfarm.co.uk). "It's not completely bang-free, but they are the quieter, sparkly fireworks," says a spokeswoman, adding that nervous children can watch from the farm's tea-room patio.